Are Sexual Sins the Least Bad?

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis (along with John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley). Faithul Christians of all stripes recognize Lewis as a modern giant of apologetics: a standard by which other attempts at simple, lucid, and charitable explication of Christianity-contra-modernity can be judged. Millions more know him as the author of popular fantasy and sci-fi novels. (And an unlucky few have only seen him woo Debra Winger in the sentimental Shadowlands.)

Catholics, true, tend to have mixed or divided opinions about Lewis. Some speak of him in the same breath that they do Chesterton; others dismiss him (as a Traditionalist seminarian did to me once during a conversation in a Catholic bookstore) as a Protestant fundamentalist. In between these extremes there’s room for Catholic admiration of Lewis, as well as criticism: of some of his pop-theological notions, of his attempted marriage with divorcée Joy Davidman, and of his apparent inability to shake anti-Catholic habits from his Ulster upbringing (which would contribute to the cooling of his famous friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien).

Another area that deserves to have a critical light shined on it is Lewis’s take on sexual sin. In Mere Christianity he asserts:

[T]hough I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who regularly goes to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.

At first blush, Lewis’s words may seem consonant with Pope Francis’s recent warnings against reducing the gospel to a small set of controversial moral teachings. To the degree that they are, of course, there’s much truth to them. Sex is not the center of Christian morality. If in our age it sometimes seems to be, it’s because our age made sex its central obsession first.

But this “least bad” business, this division of the “Animal” and “Diabolical” self, smacks to me faintly of Gnosticism—of an insufficient appreciation of the spiritual dimension of sex. Elsewhere in Lewis’s writings he does affirm the goodness of sex and of the body, but here, in what may be the best-known part of his best-known book, he seems to stop short of the full truth.

Now, it’s true that, subjectively speaking, sexual sins may in some instances be less grave than others. The Catechism, for instance, affirms that due to personal factors, moral culpability for the grave evil of masturbation may be lessened or even “reduc[ed] to a minimum” (CCC 2352). Temptations, habits, personal circumstances could likewise, it stands to reason, lessen culpability for other kinds of sexual sins, despite their serious objects.

But that’s not Lewis’s argument. He’s asserting that sexual sin, by its nature, is less bad, because it is purely “animal.”

And yet, if sexual sin is purely animal, then sex itself must be. If sexual sin is the least bad of evils, then sex is the least good of goods.

This is not the Catholic understanding.

A fully Catholic understanding of sex places it high among earthly goods. Sex is the core of conjugal union, which is so important that Christ made it a sacrament: a fleshly sign of his love for the Church. In creating life out of love, sex imitates the creative love of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it does not just imitate but cooperates with God’s creative power; God blesses, ratifies, and elevates the “animal” act by causing a new spiritual, eternal soul to come into being by it.

Given the high regard that God himself accords sex, how can offenses against it be the “least bad” of sins?

One is tempted to play armchair psychoanalyst and say that Lewis—starched Cambridge don and nearly lifelong bachelor, who in his few writings about sex sometimes apologizes for even bringing it up—simply lacked a personal frame of reference for giving sex its full due. Whatever the reason, though, I think it’s manifest that this oft-quoted passage from Mere Christianity is at best a half-truth. It’s important to put Christian sexual teaching in right context, but not at the expense of the power, sacredness, and inviolability with which God chose to endow the marital act.

Catholic Answers affirms the critical importance of sexual morality, and recognizes the personal and cultural chaos that has resulted from its abandonment. Accordingly, chastity education will always be an integral part of our mission of apologetics and evangelization. Look for a freshly revamped website, coming soon to a computer screen near you, as one sign of that commitment.

By Todd Aglialoro



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    “Are sexual sins the least bad?” LOL, as though there could be any question for the RCC. Of course sexual sins are bad, the worse bad, because sex itself is very bad (except in those few proscribed exceptions when it is tolerated in order to create new little Catholics).
    Jesus had to be born of a virgin to avoid original sin – which is passed on by sex, and that makes it bad. When we learned a few centuries later that women also contributed to the genome of the offspring, they had to make Mary immaculately conceived so she couldn’t pass along her own original sin, because of course her parents had that nasty sex, and thus passed on original sin to her. Of course there’s nothing in the bible to support the immaculate conception, but more importantly, it raises the question of why – if Yahweh was able to relieve Mary from original sin, can’t He do it for everyone without the Rube Goldberg production of impregnating a virgin (actually the original text says ‘young woman’) with Himself in order to be born as Himself so that He could make a human blood sacrifice of Himself to Himself in order to relieve us of a condition He placed on us in the first place (except that He didn’t, as evolution proves). Seriously, if He really wanted to forgive us, and the example of Mary shows He could do so without all the rigamarole, then what’s up with that?
    Of course sex is bad according the RCC. It’s personal and private, and therefore this natural drive is something easy to associate with shame and guilt, which they maliciously turn into fear of Hell. We’re informed of this by (supposedly) virgin, celibate, disordered (?) men dressed in robes, who at least had the good sense to remove themselves from the gene pool, and for which we thank them! The author disdains Lewis’ long bachelorhood, and suggests this may be why he is wrong, but why then should we trust those in permanent bachelorhood? At least Lewis gave it a whirl.
    Our sex drive is the result of evolution. If you look at human population growth, you can see that it was flat for tens to hundreds of thousands of years, and peaking sharply upwards just in the last couple centuries, in large part because we learned what germs were – information Jesus failed to share, thus failing to save millions of lives. If we hadn’t evolved to enjoy sex, we probably wouldn’t be here today. Most offspring and many women, died in childbirth. The primates that developed strong sex drives seem to have survived while other primates did not. At one time, a strong sex drive was critical to our survival and continued evolution, but today with too many people competing for too few resources, it is an evolutionary disadvantage that may bring us to extinction. We don’t have a couple hundred thousand years to evolve it out of ourselves, so what do we do?
    As it turns out, we also evolved something no other species seems to have developed, and that’s the ability to manage our future evolution, but the RCC staunchly opposes this because sex is bad. I would venture to say extinction is worse, but for those anxiously awaiting Armageddon, perhaps it is not. We have the means to manage our sex drive with contraception in order to keep from destroying our planet, but the RCC seems hell-bent on bringing about as much misery as possible to this poor planet before it implodes. Maybe Zika will save us when the next generation of Catholics have shrunken heads – already the online sales of birth control in tropical Catholic countries is increasing, and will likely continue to do so if the Zika virus continues to expand and worsen. It’s bad enough to force those least able to afford them to have the largest families under penalty of eternal torment for using contraception – but when the offspring start coming out with shrunken heads, will we finally say, “enough is enough.”

    1. Dave Reply

      I love your comments, Patrick. 🙂 They’re not all self-refuting, but they all make a good laugh.
      You should try being a(n) (a)theologian.

        1. Dave Reply


          You only need to refute something which can potentially hide truth.
          What, exactly, would I need to refute in your view? You start from a strawman, and build everything on top.
          In all your posts, you start with your own projection of your view of the RCC, and proceed from there. It’s like a creationist arguing “well, my grandpa isn’t a monkey” and hoping people to be convinced.

          I gave you a longer reply on “Why God Can’t Commend Us To Do Evil”.

          I’m fine with you not believing, but I don’t like empty arguments based on “maybes” and miscomprehensions. You must be knowledgeable with the Russel’s teapot. That’s how I see your position : if you are saying that “maybe God doesn’t exist” just to avoid saying “God doesn’t exist”, I call it lazy. I don’t just believe in God “because I can’t prove he can’t exist”. Likewise, I don’t believe you’re asking yourself the question “well, does God exist?” after every action you take; I believe you live it as if there is no God. Now, whether that “no God”, that “God” you claim doesn’t exist or hypothetically could be said of non existing is the same one as I have is another matter. And it’s the real crux of the question.

          That’s why I say I don’t bite your arguments. For me, they’re strawmen. I could lose a whole day or two explaining myself over and over, giving you all the arguments, starting with the common understanding we have about things until we find points where we start to disagree, but it’s tiring : it’s already been done over and over. The Catechism of the Church is openly available.

          That’s why I also said you should become a theologian. You’re building your idea of God, your view of God, just in order to say it’s bullcrap.

          That’s also why I said that your arguments are not all self-refuting : it’s true that “sex is personal and private”. But then, wham, it becomes the reason why sex is bad. Who argues like this? Where is the source? If it’s truly a mistake, point the source. Show why it’s something wrong.

          Hope, again, it will suffice.

          In truth,


          1. Patrick Gannon

            Dave, the first premise is based on the existence of God. Period. If there’s no God, then there is no need to go any further. You must first prove the existence of God. Whether, you, I or anyone else believes in this god or not is immaterial. We’re talking about logic. If the author wants to rewrite the Premises and begin by saying, “If we assume the assistance of God…” then the rest of his premises can be debated if one is willing to assume the existence of God, which I am not willing or able to assume for anything other than an intellectual exercise. If you want me to assume the existence of your god and then debate the rest of the premises, we could do so, but it’s an exercise in futility, like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Unless this god exists, the discussion is purely hypothetical.
            What straw man did I start from? Referring to logic is not a strawman. What argument of yours did I refute, that you did not actually advance? There is very little need to build my own idea of God. The OT is clear enough. The Abrahamic god is evil, based on His own book. I don’t have to build an idea of Yahweh, it’s right there in black and white…. perhaps you haven’t read it yet?
            It’s funny, but I get the same objection from other Catholics, primarily, who insist that agnosticism is not a viable position. They insist that one must clearly believe what they do – or not. One must be an atheist or a believer. One is not allowed to have an open, skeptical mind that awaits objective, empirical evidence for things prior to believing them. I think perhaps it’s because agnosticism is based on gnosis – on knowing, on knowledge, and the RCC does not want us to “know” things, only to “believe” what it tells us to believe. There could also be deeper hostility because the RCC did all it could to wipe out Gnostic sects that were part of the early Christian movement, and perhaps that hostility continues to this day. Atheists are simply non-believers to the RCC, while agnostics are people who actually think; and lord knows that’s dangerous!!! (satire). I sense a lot of hostility from Catholics, perhaps because I brazenly dare to think for myself!
            If Catholics don’t like that I am agnostic, all I can say is too bad. Deal with it. I do live out my daily life as though I believed God does not exist, but in reality I assign probabilities, and while the probability is very low, it’s not zero. There really could be an evil Abrahamic god as described in His “holy” book. But I surely doubt it, and I would never worship a monster who sends anyone for any reason to eternal torment (something Yahweh didn’t do until after Jesus came – some “good news,” hunh?).

            As for the rest of your discussion; it seems to me that we’re talking past each other. The simple fact is that the train of logic is based on an unproven assertion – the existence of God, and without that, the rest of the thread is moot, and is only of value as an intellectual exercise. This is a simple issue of broken logic.

          2. Patrick Gannon

            I just realized that I posted the comment above thinking I was in another thread… Ughh. Too much going on..

  2. jrhunt Reply

    According to 1 John 3:4 sin is the transgression of the law in all its forms,so to attempt to separate one sin of the flesh from another,would be futile,Yeshua has condemned all sins of the flesh Romans 8:3.the wages of sin is still death if it is a practiced life style,all sex sins include Homosexuality,adultry,transgenderism,lesbianism,Hebrews 10:26 tells us if we willfully sin(transgress the Torah)after that we have received the knowledge of the truth,there remainseth no more sacrifice for sin,we are given Yahweh’s grace just for this purpose to enable us to keep his statutes and his judgments Ezekiel 36:26-27,he also allows us the space to learn his instruction and obey them,Yeshua has forgiven us of our passed Sins without us have to keep a set of rules or laws,but then we are required to learn his ways and be a doer of the law and follow his example,that is what transformation is and how we are to be transformed by his word including his Moral laws Psalms 19:7-8,in the first century the Gospel was the Old Covenant scriptures and the remain that way to day,if you have learned to rightly divide the word of truth,the so called new testament was not canonized until the forth century,and is mostly commentary on the old Covenant,we are saved by grace through faith,but grace is the enable power of the Spirit that causes us to be acceptable to Yahweh by learning his ways and agreeing with his thoughts.-

    1. Patrick Gannon Reply

      Wow. One long sentence. Too much for me to digest or try to make sense of.

  3. Joan Okeeffe Duncanson Reply

    Patrick— Saint Patrick must be sadly shaking his head up in Heaven— a namesake has swayed so far —from the highest things —in so far they are knowable by the light of natural reasoning! Epistemology has taught me to look up for a reward in Heaven! Unfortunately you seem to have chosen to look down — wouldn’t an intelligent soul choose to go up to a Loving God —rather than down to the fires of Hell! “Me thinks thou dost Protest ,too,Much” I will pray for your Soul!!! 🙏 🙏🙏💗❤️💕💒

    1. Patrick Gannon Reply

      I have swayed so far from the highest things insofar as they are knowable by the light of natural reasoning? Hardly. By the light on natural reasoning there is nothing knowable about gods or afterlives. Natural reasoning implies evidence, and there is none for your “highest thing.”
      You share a trait with many Christians, insofar as you seek a reward in heaven. I don’t need the promise of any rewards, or threats of Hell in order to live a good life and treat others well. If you require these rewards and threats to act decently, then you aren’t an inherently good person.
      Of course it’s always Christian to threaten someone with the fires of Hell if they fail to believe, say and do the right things by the religion… Nobody ever spends any time trying to describe the wonders of heaven and why that should be a goal. Christians always focus on the threat of Hell, eternal punishment, FEAR. Christianity is a religion of FEAR. However, since I always get this threat, would you be so kind as to tell me which of the four Hells I will be going to. The Church translated four very different words to the pagan word “Hell” (Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus). Please let me know which one I am going to.
      Pray away, but I can’t give any credence to prayer until I see an amputee pray a limb back. Your god can’t or won’t do that, and that means he’s limited in power or he hates amputees for some reason – neither of which is a reason to worship him.

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